Conference travel with a carry-on

Although it’s now been a week that I’m back from MICCAI I haven’t had the time to sit down and write the really important posts that I promised several people to write. But to nevertheless share something useful, I’ve documented my packing process for a week of conference travel, with just a carry-on!

Conference travel with a carry-on |

I decided to go carry-on only in 2012, when travelling to Japan for a conference, for a trip that lasted two weeks in total. I think it was then that I researched how to actually achieve this, so I looked at lots of packing tips, mixing and matching outfits. Pinterest is pretty great for this:

It’s also when I started printing posters on fabric.

I liked the approach so much that I don’t think I ever checked luggage for a trip afterwards. Since the items I bring for each trip are similar (not the items themselves, but their types and quantity),  I like to think I have gotten quite efficient at the process.

Of course there are much more beautiful posts about packing, but I give you my very real, non-Instagram quality packing process: (WordPress was kind enough to rotate the images to random orientations as well).

Preparation: Get a good carry-on

This is step 0 because you only have to do it once, so it doesn’t really count as a step. I have a lightweight Samsonite carry-on. I cannot find the exact model online anymore, but here’s a pretty similar one on Amazon:

The most important feature for me is that the size is accepted by all airlines.


Step 1: Small flat items

Now for the packing! First, I fill in the gaps between the handles of the bag.

Conference travel with a carry-on - fill unused spaces

I usually put some smaller, but flat items, such as ballerinas/flats and underwear (in plastic bags, not shown).

Step 2: Jacket

Now that the bottom is a bit evened out, I put in my blazer/jacket part of a suit. I admit this probably only works if you are short, like me.

Conference travel with a carry-no: place jacket on bottom


Step 3. Add bigger “packs”

Next I add bigger “packs” of shoes or clothes. I do not use any packing cubes, but instead I roll my clothes (bonus: no ironing needed). In the picture below I added 3 “packs”:

  • Running shoes (with socks to fill the empty space)
  • Bottoms (1 pair of jeans, 2 skirts, 1 pyjama pants)
  • Tops (2 long-sleeve things, 3 things with short or no sleeves)


Conference travel with a carry-on: roll your clothes


Step 4. Add smaller “packs”

Now I also added:

  • A “pack” of running shorts, shirt and a cap
  • A MICCAI 2017 umbrella, a gift from the conference

Conference travel with a carry-on: add smaller items

And now also:

  • Toiletries in a 1 liter transparent bag
  • Chargers and other small electronics in a waterproof bag

Conference travel with a carry-on: add smaller items


Step 5: Leave a bit of space

Now that all the main things are in the suitcase, I fold back the sleeves of the jacket so it stays in a nice shape:

Conference travel with a carry-on: leave a bit of space

It looks now like the suitcase is full, but that is not really the case. I can still put items on top, and easy close it.

I do this because I also have a personal item (A4-sized shoulder bag) which fits my laptop and a few small items I want to use on the plane. Most airlines allow this, but I still get nervous that I would need to check in the carry-on because I have two bags in total. So, I make sure the whole personal item fits into the carry-on!

For aesthetic purposes, here is a picture of the two biggest items from my shoulder bag inside the suitcase: my laptop and Travelrest travel pillow. But the bag itself with the smaller items (wallet, headphones etc) still fits on top.

Conference travel with a carry-on: space for your personal item


All done!

Conference travel with a carry-on: done!

And no, I didn’t pack the cat 🙂



How do you travel for conferences? If you check luggage, would you consider going with just a carry-on instead?  I would love to hear your thoughts!

4 thoughts on “Conference travel with a carry-on”

  1. I love this post. I once told my graduate students, all female at the time, they should only use carry-on baggage going to a conference, because this saves so much time at the airport. They thought it was the most stupid idea ever. How could you possibly pack all those clothes you need for a one week conference in such a small suitcase. And they pointed me to their colleagues (from Radiology) who needed even more than one giant checked in suitcase to pack all their stuff. But you prove me right 🙂

    • Thanks! It was actually all male medical imaging colleagues I ran into at the airport, who checked in luggage and thought I was crazy 😉

    • Haha, tubes from the lab, that’s awesome – I’d love to see a picture of that! I usually like to use GoToob containers (quite pricey but very nice). And for make-up remover I have these pads… since there is no “ml” on the label, I’m assuming they don’t count as liquids.


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